Monday, April 7, 2008

James Holman: the Blind Traveller

“He had eyes in his mouth, eyes in his nose, eyes in his ears, and eyes in his mind”
– William Jerdan

James Holman: restless chap
JAMES HOLMAN TRAVELLED a whopping quarter of a million miles in his lifetime - further than anyone had ever travelled before. It was a record that stood well into the twentieth century. And he did it, incredibly, despite being totally blind.

And not just blind. Holman also suffered from an acute form of rheumatism. The pain was often so bad he couldn’t get out of bed. But when the worst agonies had passed, he would always pick himself up, grab his battered walking stick and carry on globetrotting. The man was awesome. He was unstoppable.

James Holman was a Devonian, born in Exeter in 1786. A healthy boy with perfect vision, he dreamed of seeing the world. At the age of twelve, he joined the Royal Navy and set sail for the Atlantic. He served there for a dozen years, patrolling the freezing waters off Canada and New England, rising to the rank of lieutenant.

But life at sea was brutal and the Exeter lad was unlucky. The constant cold and wet started to get to him. Mysterious pains began to shoot through his bones. His feet and ankles became inflamed. Soon he was barely able to walk. No use to the navy, Lieutenant Holman was sent back to England in 1810, an invalid.

And it got worse. While recuperating in the spa city of Bath, his eyesight too began to fail. It’s not clear why; perhaps there was some link to the rheumatism. But the deterioration was rapid and catastrophic. In a matter of weeks, poor Holman was left not only crippled, but completely blind. He was just twenty-five years old.

Lesser men might have jacked it all in right there. In the early nineteenth century blind people were viewed, at best, as creatures to pity. No one would dream of hiring a man who couldn’t see – even a bright one like Holman. The blind were expected to settle for a life of begging in the street, a rag tied round their damaged eyes to avoid upsetting sensitive passers-by.

But from the start Holman had other ideas. He wasn’t going to be treated as a charity case. As soon as he was able, he began venturing out alone, learning how to navigate city streets with his metal-tipped walking stick. He wore his blue Royal Navy uniform wherever he went. He refused to wear a blindfold.

He secured a small income by getting accepted as a Naval Knight, an honorary position for disabled sailors which came with a yearly allowance and free lodging at Windsor Castle. He worked hard at sharpening his wits, honing his sense of touch, hearing and smell to make up for being sightless. He got used to people mysteriously raising their voices when speaking to him as if he must also be hard of hearing. And then he got himself an education.

Studying medicine at Edinburgh University was a mad idea. Holman had left school at twelve. He was a decade older than most students. And braille hadn’t been invented so he couldn’t read text books. It’s a testament to his doggedness that he completed his studies by repeatedly attending lectures – once, twice, three times – till all the information stuck. Then, on the advice of his doctor, he left Scotland and set off to Mediterranean for its healing sunshine.

A leisurely cruise to the South of France accompanied by a nurse and servants is what the doc had in mind. But Holman’s modest budget didn’t stretch to that. So instead he hobbled aboard a bog-standard ferry to Calais and went south overland, travelling entirely alone. It was the best decision of his life.

The journey that followed would have been hell for a healthy man. France’s roads were a muddy, pot-holed mess after years of war. Coach journeys were spine-jolting, soul-destroying ordeals that rumbled on painfully through the night. Passengers were crammed in on top of one another. Holman couldn’t speak a word of French.

But the Exeter lad who’d once dreamed of seeing the world loved it. “Behold me, then, in France!” he writes joyously, “Surrounded by a people, to me, strange, invisible, and incomprehensible.”

His health improved. His spirits lifted. Sometimes, on slow stretches of road, he’d hop out of his coach, tie a bit of string to its wooden frame – then jog along behind holding the cord. The exercise invigorated him. He was becoming a man of adventure.

Holman trundled steadily through France like that for a year, pausing in Paris, Toulouse and Montpellier. He must have been a curious sight: a tall, thin, sightless Englishman, still wearing his navy uniform. And now he wore a big straw sunhat too.

He became expert at making his way around strange cities, tap-tap-tapping with his walking stick, soaking up the sounds and smells of town squares and market places, feeling his way around new buildings. Always the perfect gentleman, women quickly warmed to him and would let him explore their faces with his hands. Holman loved that. Blind or not, he had quite an eye for the ladies.

People asked him how a sightless man could enjoy sightseeing. He told them that his blindness heightened the pleasures of travel. It gave him what he called “a stronger zest to curiosity”, forced him to pause and examine everything deeply. The journalist William Jerdan, who knew Holman, grasped what he meant. “[Holman] had eyes in his mouth, eyes in his nose, eyes in his ears,” he writes, “and eyes in his mind, never blinking.”

After France, Holman should have headed home. Naval Knights had obligations as well as privileges. He’d been given a year’s leave from Windsor Castle, no more. Now he was expected to return and fulfil the main duty of a knight: attending chapel twice daily. But Holman couldn’t do it. He was on a roll. He had the bug. Instead of turning around, he kept on going down the boot of Italy.

In Rome, the blind adventurer climbed up inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica and tried (unsuccessfully) to get out a window and scale the cross on its roof. Fired up, he then hiked to the top of Mount Vesuvius – while the volcano was active. He was the first blind person to reach the summit. He tapped his way gingerly round the crater, singeing his walking stick in the process and filling his boots with ash.

In nearby Naples, Holman hooked up with an old navy pal, a guy he calls Mr C. The anonymous Mr C had gone deaf since the pair served together in the Atlantic. But he too had developed a passion for travel. So the blind man and the deaf man teamed up and went north together through Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. It was the one and only time that Holman chose to travel with a companion.

The friends parted in Amsterdam. Then, when he was good and ready, Holman took a ferry back to Britain. It was now 1821. He’d been gone more than seven hundred days. He’d overstayed his leave from Windsor Castle by almost a year.

Yet six months later he was off again. He stuck around in England just long enough to dictate a book about his adventures in Europe*. By the time it hit the bookshelves, he was gone. Wandering around Europe had been a warm-up. Now he was going to attempt the mother of all journeys: a complete circuit of the world.

Circumnavigating the globe in the 1820s was the stuff of fantasy. A few sailors and merchants had done it. But independent travellers didn’t go there – the seas were too dangerous, berths on sailing ships too expensive, and the trip would take forever. Only a nutcase would even consider it; a nutcase like the half-crippled, totally blind Royal Navy Lieutenant James Holman.

Holman had a plan: he’d cut down the cost of sea voyages by travelling as far as possible overland in public transport, sleeping in cheap hostels and eating local food. That meant he had only one route open to him, a path no circumnavigator had tried before. Instead of sailing west to the New World, he would have to start by going east into the vast Russian Empire. He was going to try to cross Siberia.

The journey began okay. Holman took a boat to St Petersburg, then a public sledge to Moscow. But when he told people there he was going to continue east, Muscovite jaws dropped in amazement. They called him insane. “The name of Siberia seemed connected in their minds only with horror,” he reports.

But Holman was fixed on getting to Russia’s far eastern coast where he hoped to find a whaling ship to take him across the Pacific. His determination was unshakeable. He bought a rickety old wagon, hired a driver, packed a good supply of tea, medicine and brandy – and trundled off into the frozen wilderness with “a feeling of happy confidence” in his heart.

The journey, as predicted, was a horror show. Passenger and driver went for days eating nothing but bread. One week they faced subzero temperatures; the next they were in a swamp with gnats and mosquitoes feasting on their faces. When Holman heard the rattle of chains he knew his cart was passing another column of convicts being force-marched into Siberian exile.

The bone-rattling ride went on for 3,500 miles across some of the harshest, bleakest wilderness on the planet. Three months after leaving Moscow the bruised and frozen travellers arrived in Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia. And there, after initially being given a warm welcome, Holman was suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a spy - and whisked right back the way he’d just come.

It was a kind of nineteenth century extraordinary rendition. A shady character from the Tsar’s secret police appeared with orders to escort Holman out of Russia. The Englishman was plonked on a sledge and driven thousands of miles westwards at breakneck speed. It was no sleep till Poland. He was dumped at the border and told to cross it.

A baffled and bewildered Lieutenant Holman made his way home across Europe, arriving in Hull in June 1824. He’d been away two years and one day. His round-the-world jaunt had failed. But there was good news awaiting him: his European travel book was selling well. He was famous. He’d become the celebrated Blind Traveller.

After producing a second best seller about his Siberian adventure*, he was on the move again. And with royalties in the bank, he could now afford to attempt a round-the-world trip by sailing ship. He told the bigwigs at Windsor Castle he had to travel to the sun again for health reasons. Then, without a trace of irony, he sailed for West Africa – the white man’s grave.

He left on the HMS Eden, a Royal Navy frigate sent to establish a British settlement on the island of Fernando Po, just off Africa’s west coast. Unlike the mainland, Fernando Po was thought to be free of malaria, cleansed by a brisk sea breeze. The crew of HMS Eden expected to find a little tropical heaven. Instead they found hell.

Fever quickly ripped through the European settlement. Of the one hundred and thirty-five men who sailed on the Eden, just twelve would survive the expedition. Yet despite the appalling death toll, Holman stuck it out on that toxic little island for a year, helping his friend Captain Owen get a base up and running. And for once he had luck with his health: he made it out alive.

It was on Fernando Po that Holman grew a whopping great beard that he kept for the rest of his life. According to William Jerdan, it “would have done credit to the Chief Rabbi of the Jews”. And it was there that he met a young African woman who, unlike the ladies of Europe, let him touch more than just her face. “Perceiving that I did not immediately recognise her… [she] placed my hand on her bosom,” he tells us happily. “Her relatives and countrymen all laughed heartily and appeared to enjoy my astonishment much.”

Hitching a ride in a Dutch ship, he moved on to Brazil. And from there he began an astonishing series of sea voyages that would finally realise his round-the-world dream. South Africa, Zanzibar and Mauritius came first. Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Calcutta and Canton (now Guangzhou) followed. From China he headed to Australia. Then it was across the Pacific, round the tip of South America, back to Brazil, and home.

On boarding a new boat Holman would sometimes treat the crew to his little party trick: he’d clamber up the rigging, right to the very top, then shout and wave to the gobsmacked men below. If anyone was tempted to treat him like an invalid that usually put a stop to it. And when he went exploring on land he made a point of behaving exactly like a man who’d never lost his sight.

In Brazil he accepted an invitation to inspect a gold mine (he didn’t bother bringing a lantern). In South Africa he taught himself to ride a horse and went off into the wilds with a young African sidekick who didn’t speak English. In Ceylon he took part in an elephant hunt. He crossed Zanzibar and Tasmania on foot. And in China he toked on an opium pipe.

It wasn’t all plain sailing: he was assaulted by a swarm of wasps, he was thrown from a horse, and his rheumatism sometimes crippled him. But he always pressed on, patiently and tenaciously, still wearing his old naval uniform and carrying his stick. He relied, he says, on “divine protection and on the sympathies of mankind”. And they didn’t let him down: in five years circling the globe he was never once ripped off or robbed.

The Blind Traveller got back to England in 1832 and set to work on his third book, “A Voyage round the World, including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America &, from 1827 to 1832”. But it was less well received than his previous efforts. The novelty of a sightless sightseer was wearing thin. The inspirational adventurer had somehow become a bit of a joke.

It was eight years before he got to travel again. In 1840, Holman (now fifty-four) once again set out alone and on a shoestring, this time for the Mediterranean and Middle East. He visited Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Syria and the Holy Land. He passed through Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. He went up into Bosnia, Montenegro and Hungary. He was gone six years. And by the time he got back, he was pretty much forgotten. No one was interested in even publishing his account of that last epic journey, the swansong of the most travelled man of all time.

This is bizarre. According to his biographer, Jason Roberts, Holman had now clocked up a staggering quarter of a million miles. “None could even approach the achievements of the Blind Traveller…” writes Roberts in “A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveller”. “Alone, sightless, with no prior command of native languages and with only a wisp of funds, he had forged a path equivalent to wandering to the moon.”

James Holman lived out his remaining years in east London, down by the docks. It was a dodgy part of town, full of sailors’ pubs and brothels. No place for a gentleman. But it was the ideal spot for a sick, old, white-bearded wanderer who now needed the sounds and smells of the world to come to him.

The Blind Traveller died on 28 July, 1857, aged seventy. A week before his death he finished work on his autobiography. No one was interested in publishing that either. The manuscript has now been lost.

*FOOTNOTE 1: Holman’s first book was snappily entitled, “The Narrative of a Journey, Undertaken in the Years 1819, 1820 & 1821, Through France, Italy, Savoy, Switzerland, Parts of Germany Bordering the Rhine, Holland, and The Netherlands”.

*FOOTNOTE 2: Another memorable title: “Travels through Russia, Siberia, Poland, Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover & & Undertaken During the Years 1822, 1823 and 1824, While Suffering from Total Blindness and Comprising an Account of the Author being Conducted a State Prisoner from the Eastern Parts of Siberia”.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Roberts, Jason, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveller (London, 2006)
Jerdan, William, Men I Have Known (1866)
Keay, John, Eccentric Travellers (London, 1982)



Unknown said...

Thanks for researching & publishing this biography. Holman, from the past, should be an inspiration for us today ! Much more than just a nutter - someone with an immense vital spirit & courage !

Anonymous said...

You can find additional information on Holman's travels in Russia in my new book 'An Accidental Relationship' published by Austin Macauley.
Roderick Heather

Simon Bendle said...

Thanks for the feedback, Mark & Austin!

Manish Batra said...

Nice site, It strikes a nice balance of the concept. I had a natural tendency towards 'mindfulness' from a young age. I am glad that I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation. Thanks for sharing.
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Keep Posting:)

Manish Batra said...

Hey, very nice site. I came across this on Google, and I am stoked that I did. I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment. Thanks for sharing.
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Keep Posting:)

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Mynda Holman said...

A delightful story. I stumbled on it looking for Holman relatives in the UK. Recent DNA tests and long-time research have pointed me to England. I am proud to make believe that he is a distant cousin or uncle. Mynda Holman McGuire in Texas

Simon Bendle said...

Thanks Mynda, Sylvia and Wheelchair! Glad you enjoyed reading about James Holman... he's quite a character, isn't he? It's been quite a while now since I wrote this little series of biographies. Unfortunately, I don't have time these days to write any more. So it's great to see people are still reading and enjoying these stories. Thanks again and all the best.

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Simon Bendle said...

Thanks Jasmine

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